Preparation for Justice

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of God. In a couple of weeks, the readings will focus on the coming of God in the flesh to dwell among us in the Nativity of our Lord. But the readings today focus on preparing for when that same person comes in glory and justice at the end of time.

So I would like us today to focus on two key words: one is justice and the other is preparation.

We know that our Lord will come in justice on the day of judgment. And that can be an intimidating thought. We know in our moments of brutal honesty that we do not deserve eternal life in heaven, and that we only get it because of God’s love and his mercy. But do we appreciate how true justice cannot be separated from the same love that is at the heart of mercy? All the other virtues derive from the virtue of love. That means that there cannot be real justice without love. So let us focus on the love that is part of the day of judgment so that we can appreciate the beauty, the truth, and the goodness of the justice that will be dispensed on that day.

God made us in his image, and he made us for communion with him. It is his heart’s desire that he be our hearts’ desire. What he desires more than anything is for us to desire him more than anything. And because of the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a lot of the time we do not desire God more than anything.

How God responded to that original sin reveals how much he loves us. He let Adam and Eve go. They had made their choice, and he let them go where their choice led. Most of us have made a choice that we soon regretted, and we regretted it deeply. I am sure that Adam and Eve quickly and deeply regretted their decision to follow Satan instead of following their creator.

God our Creator gave us in his image the freedom to choose. Adam and Eve chose poorly, but God respected that choice in his justice. He respects our choices today. That is the measure of his love for us; he loves us so much, he will let us walk away from him.

Most of us are here today in church because we don’t want to walk away from God, in fact, we want to return to God. We hear his voice, and we are responding. Because of our fallen nature, we don’t often respond the way we wish we would respond. Because our thinking is unclear, and because our choosing is somewhat corrupted, we make bad decisions. I know I do. But God loves us through those bad decisions. He loved Adam and Eve through their bad decision.

Now there are always consequences to decisions. And Adam and Eve were no different. The consequences of their decision were that they could no longer remain in the garden of Eden. But as they were leaving, they heard the promise that God would find a way to call them back. God promised to call them back into the relationship that He made them for. And he makes that promise to us. His justice is grounded in his love. He is coming in justice at the end of time, but he is coming in love to call his children home. The day of judgment for all who love Jesus will be a homecoming. Thursday was Thanksgiving, and many of us were in family homes surrounded by our relatives. So imagine the perfect Thanksgiving celebration, with all of the joys of family and none of the fights of family. For those who claim the name of Jesus, that’s what the day of judgment is going to be: a day of love and celebration and blessing.

Let us now consider our second word: preparation. Those of us who claim Christ as our king are in a special situation. We are in the world, but the kingdom of Christ to which we belong is ultimately beyond the world. Father Romano Guardini was a famous German priest in the 20th century, and in one of his meditations before Mass he wrote this:

Essentially a soldier, the Christian is always on the lookout. He has sharper ears, and he hears an undertone that others miss. He is never submerged in life, but keeps his head and shoulders clear of it, and his eyes free to look upward.

Romano Guardini

I think this is a great description of how we are supposed to live in this world without being “of” this world. We must always be preparing for life in the next world. And we have to be willing to behave this way even when we feel so alone. The power of the crowd cannot be overstated. Guys will do things in a crowd they would never do on their own. The Christian life means always doing the right thing even when everybody else is not only doing the wrong thing but trying to get you to do it with them. The Christian life is not for wimps.

And it’s understandable when we run out of strength. We are never alone; God is always inviting us and the devil is always tempting us. So it’s a lot of work to be as Father Guardini describes and to keep our ears sharp and our eyes bright. Father Guardini explains the consequences:

When this awareness and watchfulness disappear, Christian life loses its edge; it becomes dull and ponderous.

Without a posture of preparation, Christian life loses its edge. Without its edge, Christian life loses its heart. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans exhorts them this way: “You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.” Whenever you’re doing something that requires concentration and you lose your edge, you frequently fall asleep. As Christians preparing for eternal life, we have to keep our edge.

Jesus in the gospel today reminds his disciples that there was no two-minute warning before the flood in the days of Noah. He says: “They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the son of man.”

We must commit to preparation because God’s love and God’s justice are linked. He loves us enough to keep inviting us to turn back and live his life in the world today. But he wants us to make our choice independently. Everybody rushes to get on the train when they know it’s the last train leaving the station that day. We will not be told things like that. So we must remain committed to a posture of preparation every day so that when the last day comes, he will recognize us as his sons and daughters. He will look on us with love on that day of justice, and we will look on him with love because we were prepared for his coming.

Fancy Dinners

Last Sunday, we read how Jesus was asked if only a few people would be saved, and Fr. Neil used that Scripture to remind us that hell is real, and it is a real possibility for everyone. This week we move forward a chapter in the gospel of Luke, and we get a parable on what you might call “dining room etiquette.” Last week, we got reminded that there is a Heaven and a Hell. This week, we get a little bit of instruction from our Lord on how to get to heaven and enjoy eternal life.

From the parable and from the other readings today, we are presented with two approaches to life with others and to following God’s commandments. In the parable from today’s gospel, Jesus gives a lot of practical advice on what to do when you’re invited to a fancy dinner. It’s all very prudent. Rather than going and sitting in the best seat, go sit in the lowest seat and thereby increase your odds of being promoted. It sounds like a very good and humble approach to human status.

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Lord Teach Us to Pray

In the gospel that we read today from Luke, we are given the scene where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and he gives them the Our Father. This is one of the first prayers we learn as Christians. And we recite it daily and even many times in the course of the day.

The Lord’s Prayer is directed to the Father: Our Father. Praying to the Father should be familiar to all of us who participate in the Mass, for every opening prayer we hear at Mass, indeed most of the prayers in the Missal, is directed to the father, it is prayed through the son, and it is offered in the Holy Spirit. The model of prayer given to us by Jesus is the model the Church uses in its liturgies, and it is a model for us in our private prayer: we should be willing to direct our prayers to our Heavenly Father.

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Failing to Perfection

Good morning men! Our retreat theme is the virtuous man, or the man of virtue. And these words are deeply connected, as the root of the word virtue is the Latin word for “man” where we get words like “virility” in English. So a virtue is the excellence that an excellent man should manifest or demonstrate. So that is what we are aiming for. But we are all men here, so we know that sometimes we miss the mark. And I would like us to spend some time this morning talking about missing the mark.

Perfection is a word used in the Scriptures and by the Church that means “completed and in the form it was meant to be.” It’s not the same thing as flawless or unblemished. Perfection implies progress and refinement. And this morning we want to talk about progress toward being completed and in the form – being the man – we were made to be.

Together, we are going to talk about failing – missing the mark – and perfection – growing into our ideal self. And I hope to convince you that failing properly will actually help us become perfect. We are going to talk about Failing to Perfection.

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The Model of the Holy Family

Yesterday we celebrated the Incarnation. It is also the Nativity of the Lord. It is a solemn celebration of the mystical reality that God became man, that God, who is the author of all creation, sent himself, his only son in human flesh, to live with us and share our earthly experience. And he came in human flesh finally to redeem us by his sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. So the celebration of Christmas is a celebration of our Heavenly Father’s love for his children.

Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Family. Our God loves us so much that he gave us a model on how to live in the state of life that is common to all of us. All of us are somebody’s son or daughter, and so all of us are part of a family.

We all start as a member of a family, though some of us choose another state of life, such as the priesthood or religious life. And some of us lost the family state of life when we became an orphan or a widow or some other disruption in the traditional family arrangement.

In the Holy Family, we have a model for holiness in family life, even if our family has not always reflected that. In Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph, we have examples of what to strive for – as children of parents, as parents of children, and as spouses. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, give us models – sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly – of what sonship or motherhood or fatherhood should look like, and we reflect on that today.

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Freedom Rider

My father would have been 90 today. He was an idealist, but also a depressive, so he rarely followed through with the actions implied by his strongly held beliefs.

He was a Platonist rather than an Aristotelean. But at least once in his life, he took great risk and really made a stand for his principles.

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In September 1961, he was one of 14 Episcopalian clergymen who broke the segregation laws of Jackson, MS, by eating at a lunch counter with a black man. They were held in jail about a week before the judge dismissed the case. Kabuki theater in the end, but at the time he was preparing to be sent to the kind of work farm depicted in the movie Cool Hand Luke.

We are all made in the image and likeness of God, as we read in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. We are also all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, who turned away from God in the Original Sin, as we read just a couple of chapters later in the same book.

Every person, every human life, is precious, and we must never lose sight of that fundamental truth. Likewise, every person is a sinner, imperfect in his behavior despite his profound dignity and importance to God. When Jesus invited the righteous to throw a stone at the sinful girl, nobody did because all recognized their own unrighteousness. Let us love each other as God loves us: through thick and thin, without judgment, risking our own lives.

Virtuous Relationships

I’m here tonight to talk to you about how to develop and maintain holy and virtuous relationships with your beloved. The formation process for the permanent diaconate involves a fair amount of intellectual learning, but I’m also going to share with you some of the insights I have gained just through normal – maybe a bit abnormal – life lessons. I am married. I did date. I did not always approach women the way I now understand I should. I did a lot because I am a sinner. I did some because I didn’t know any better. I hope I give you some knowledge and some tools tonight so you are not doomed to repeat my mistakes.

Ignorance is a big problem for us Catholics in the world today. If you were in your school years at any point after 1960, then you were put through an educational system that was very busy rejecting the accumulated wisdom of the previous 2,000 years. So many of those concepts that the modern society rejected had to do with the relationship between men and women. Part of why we have so much trouble in this area is that our toolbox is full of the wrong tools. It’s very hard to hang a picture on a wall if you don’t have a hook, a little hammer, and a level. How much harder it is to live the vocation to holy matrimony if you don’t know how men and women are made by their Creator. That’s what I want to talk to you about tonight. Continue reading “Virtuous Relationships”

The Wedding at Cana

This past Sunday was the second Sunday in Ordinary time, and the Gospel reading in Year C was the story in John 2 of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.  When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” (And) Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told them, “Fill the jars with water.” So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they

took it. And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him. [John 2:1-11]

Mary figures prominently in this story.  I am always struck by Mary’s role as an intercessor and as Mother of the Church, both of which are found in this story.  In her role as intercessor, she alerts Jesus when the people are in need.  Here they need wine ifthe_marriage_at_cana_decani the wedding feast is to continue according to custom.  Those of us who pray “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death” know from this Bible story our entreaties to her are efficacious and appropriate.

 

Mary instructs the people at Cana to “do whatever He tells you.”  This is also her word to the Church: “Obey the Word.”  The Bible can be reduced to two words: Love and Obey.  We do not fully understand the first word and we understand all too well the second word, so God gives us the whole Bible to help us comprehend the former and embrace the latter. Mary’s immaculate conception is to me the only sensible explanation for her lack of difficulty in obeying God.  Full of grace, she was not structurally inclined to challenge God or disobey Him.  As Mother of the Church, she encourages us to overcome our structural inclinations and obey the Word.

The message of hope and promise in the changing of water into wine in the story of the wedding at Cana is that if we choose to do whatever He tells us, He can transform the ordinary into something extraordinary.  Just as the servants dared to draw out some of the water they had just put in a stone jar and take that water to the wine steward for tasting, so are we called to obey Him even if what He tells us to do is foolishness to the world.  That this is not easy is implied in the story.  The servants knew they were taking water to the wine steward for tasting, yet they did it.  They knew a miracle had taken place when the wine steward remarked on the wine’s quality.  The wine steward made a comment on the normal ordering of wines at a party, but the servants saw something far more interesting and important.  Ordinary things are made extraordinary and even Holy when lives are led in obedience to God.  By doing whatever He tells you, you will see Him more clearly, just as the servants saw more clearly than did the wine steward.  Nothing could be more ordinary than pouring water into a jar, yet this is the story we tell when we move into the season of Epiphany when the Son of Man is made manifest.  We tell this story because this pouring of ordinary water was done by people open to the power of God, and that openness played a significant part in the power of the first miracle of Jesus.

Mary’s encouragement must be powerful, for the servants knew they were taking water to a wine steward but did it anyway.  When we react with dismissal or condescension upon hearing that someone else payed for Mary to wrap her mantle of protection around him, let us be reminded of how her mantle protected and strengthened the faith of the servants at the wedding in Cana.